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George Herbert: Shaped Poems Essay

George Herbert’s style in his collection of religious poetry, The Temple, is very short, clear, concise, and gets to the point. Different from John Donne, Herbert structures his poetry around biblical metaphors and his struggle to define his relationship with God. Herbert places himself in church through many poems that are styled in an architectural form, however his emphasis is always on the soul’s inner construction. Rather than voice his fears about being saved by God or sinning as Donne had, Herbert faces his fearful behavior by focusing on his relationship with Christ.

In order to do this, Herbert focuses on architectural motifs and how one’s soul is constructed to become a better person. Since Herbert is a metaphysical and religious poet, his poetry always ends with a metaphysical conceit. A metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor that structures the entire poem. Usually, these metaphors deal with spirituality, intellectual ideas, and are supposed to teach one to be a good, or better Christian (Miller). The metaphysical conceit is one way in which a poem is structured, formed, or as Herbert writes, is used as an architectural form.

In each of his poems, Herbert has a conceit that sums up the poetry. In other words, it serves a moral and we, the readers are taught a lesson. Another way architectural structure takes place in poetry is by the use of figurative language. For example, Herbert’s poetry is written with metaphors, similes, and his poetry is usually wrapped around the AABB and ABAB rhyme scheme. We see the use of these rhyme schemes in The Altar and Easter Wings. Architectural imagery takes place in a number of Herbert’s poetry. In The Temple, the opening poem is titled The Altar and the very shape of the poem suggests an altar of worship.

The poems structure is in an AABB rhyme scheme and has many metaphors. In Lines 1-4, Herbert announces in his poem his intention to build an altar to the Lord. He states “… Made of heart, and cemented with tears/As the hand thy framed; No workman’s tool hath touched the same”(1-5). This very quote gives the reference to building a relationship with God and it is given away in the poem that the altar is actually the human heart. This here is an example of the metaphysical conceit. He is using the broken altar as a metaphor for the heart and how one should sacrifice and offer himself to the lord.

The altar Herbert is making to God in this poem is also made of “broken” material, not actually out of stone, but it is “Made of a heart, and cemented with tears”(2). Here, Herbert is building a sacrifice that is pleasing before God-an altar made of broken material, but the brokenness is from the soul, and the altar and offerings are of himself. We know this because he uses the first person narrative in lines 14-16. Herbert writes: “That, if I chance to hold my peace, these stones to praise thee may not cease. Oh let thy sacrifice be mine, and sanctify this altar to be thine” (14-16).

His poem speaks about the internal emotions he has with God. He is comparing his cold, empty heart to a cold, hard stone. Herbert writes: “A heart alone is such a stone, as nothing but thy power doth cut”(5-8). This quote may suggest the cold and empty feeling he has because of God’s absence. He wants his heart to praise God, but feels like he cannot because he has to be part of a sacrifice as he states in lines 15-16. “Oh let thy blessed sacrifice be mine, and sanctify this altar to be thine”(15-16). Only by sacrificing his broken self will God accept and help him. However, The Altar is not the only poem in which architectural styles occur.

Easter Wings, also takes on the metaphysical conceit and exhibition of architectural styles. Herbert’s poetry is meant to teach people to be good Christians, and by constructing the poem around biblical metaphors, the message is received. The point of having these biblical metaphors is to gain knowledge and define the relationship with God through Herbert’s eyes. In Easter Wings, Herbert structures his poem in the shaped verse. The four stanzas are shaped in two sets of angel wings. In terms of rhyme scheme, Herbert uses ababacdcdc in both stanzas. Each stanza represents a different relationship between God and man.

Herbert’s poem deals with man’s suffering as the result of his sins and his repentance to God through the end of the poem. The poem starts with the idea that when God created man, man was given what is necessary to survive: “Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store” (1) God created man with an abundance and wealth of items needed to survive in this world, but man takes God’s gifts for granted ends up losing what was given to him. The greed that man had leads to the falling of man until the wealth given to him by God is nearly gone: “Decaying more and more, / Till he became / Most poor:” (3-5).

Here, the structure of the poem is set up with man having all he needs, but by being greedy, he has fallen. This particular poem is amazing it terms of how it addresses the journey of man from his sin to God redeeming him. Each stanza discusses man’s self-destruction and how God eventually helps him. The language of loss and faith comes to play when God comes in. The poem is structured in a way that it starts with man having the most of things and goes to least of things when man sins and loses. For example, the second stanza moves from discussing man’s falling and focuses on man’s redemption through God.

Herbert writes, “With thee / O let me rise / As larks, harmoniously,”(7-8). In these lines, man is giving himself to God and hopes that God will allow him to have what he had before: the items needed to survive. Similarly, by stanza three and four, we see the repeated pattern of man’s sin and the road to redemption from God. In a way, the structure of the poem is set up so that the reader realizes that the poem uses the ascending to descending to ascending again theme. It can be inferred that the person in the poem does good, but falls into sin, yet does good again and is eventually saved.

Again, the third stanza addresses the sin of man: “My tender age in sorrow did begin: / And still with sickness and shame / Thou didst so punish sin, / That I became / Most thin” (11-14). Here, man discusses how God has punished him for his sins. When man sinned early on he was punished with sickness. Not only did God take away his wealth, but he also became sick, causing man to become “thin”. However, by stanza four, man hopes for redemption. Herbert writes: “With thee / Let me combine, / And feel this day thy victory, / For, if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me” (16-20).

Here, Man wants God to become a part of him. As the word imp implies, man wants to attach himself to God so God can see how he is now devoted to him. Man speaks of attaching himself (imp) to the wing of God as a means of flying back towards being saved. Man will be taken under Gods wing and will be guided towards the path of righteousness. By doing this, man takes into account all the suffering that he has endured as a result of being punished for his sins. By reaffirming his devoutness to God, man hopes to redeem himself. In the poem, the words are not the only things that provide meaning.

The poems shape also gives meaning. Although the language itself describes the sins and redemption of man, the shape of the poem is what really describes what is being said. As man’s destruction is described, the poem’s line lengths become smaller, and as man’s salvation is described, the line lengths become longer. This is what gives the image of two sets of wings, which symbolize man’s fall and eventual redemption towards the end of the poem. Here, the metaphysical conceit suggests that the wings are the actual salvation of man. The wings are being compared to a human characteristic, salvation.

By recognizing his sins, man realizes that the only way he will be forgiven is if he goes towards salvation. It can be inferred that the message of this poem is to be grateful for what you have because it can be taken way in a blink of an eye. However, with repentance and devotion to God, you will be forgiven. In summation, Herbert’s use of architectural styles is what helps a reader generate the poems meaning. In almost all of his poems, Herbert’s use of architecture helps aid him in exhibiting the larger meaning. Usually, his ending message is that people must sacrifice what they have if they want a better, blessed life.


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